BOOKS: ‘Vietnam Declassified’

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By Thomas L. Ahern Jr.

University Press of Kentucky, $40

480 pages, illustrated


The stated objective of in-house histories of any government agency, and particularly so of CIA, is that they reach a “lessons-learned”conclusion for persons who might walk similar ground in their future work. To be credible, history must be objective, warts and all. Failures of analysis and execution must be addressed; glossing them over, in the instance of CIA, can cost future lives.

For that reason, this study by Thomas Ahern, a CIA operations officer for more than three decades, is especially sobering. It relates years of intensive efforts by the agency to convince the rural masses of Vietnam that their best interests lay with the Saigon central government, and not with the communist Viet Cong. In the end, the CIA’s efforts failed.

As Mr. Ahern makes plain, what CIA attempted as a “mission impossible” from the start - but one attempted because of a conviction at all levels of government that Vietnam represented an attempt at communist expansion. Given the Soviet creation of postwar satellite states in Eastern Europe, and the Korean War, the United States threw a lifeline to France, Vietnam’s colonial master for 70 years. The effort failed, and a succession of U.S. presidents moved into the breach.

Longtime CIA Asian hand Donald Gregg summarizes the basic policy error in a foreword, “Instead of seeing France’s debacle as the end of the colonial era in southeast Asia, we chose to deal with the region in the stark and rigid terms of the cold war.” (After his first year in Vietnam, 1962, Mr. Gregg concluded the enterprise was one “to which no happy ending is possible.”)

Mr. Ahern, who was there, details the myriad programs aimed at winning the proverbial “hearts and minds” of the Vietnamese masses. A diligent reader must be excused for feeling at times that he is swimming in a swirling vat of alphabet soup as Mr. Ahern ticks through the various programs and offices: PFC, ICEX, PSDF, RD, RDCG, PRU, and so forth into infinity.

By the mid-1960s, the optimism of President Lyndon B. Johnson, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, and many others notwithstanding, many persons at the top of CIA had strong doubts about achieving success. This frustration was emphatically stated in a 1967 “eyes only” cable from Richard Helms, the director of central intelligence, to William Colby, CIA’s chief of station in Saigon:

“I simply have come to the point where I feel that the American effort in ‘pacification’ and ‘national building’ has become so preoccupied with organization, theory and guidelines, that the best brains, certainly of the Washington level, are not being devoted to the precise task of how the game is to be played. … After all, football games are won by teams that understand the mechanics, rather than the theory, of making touchdowns. … If this memorandum fills you with irritation, it is not meant to do so. … The time is late. … This should be the year for players, not for cheerleaders.” (This memo is not in Mr. Ahern’s history; see below for the source.)

Many brave agency officers threw their energies into the effort, putting their lives at risk, and Mr. Ahern does not fault their work. He does point out what became obvious to many agency officers by the early 1960s: The Saigon regime was hostile to the notion of programs that might bring even a semblance of self-government to the rural areas.

Hence the government was wary of any agency activities that posed a threat to its central authority, regardless of the fact that the countryside was crumbling around it. The U.S. military command, which had its own power-sharing phobias, also hindered agency work. (Mr. Ahern tells of the special forces officer who spent $125 for a movie projector to show villagers popular Western films - interspersed with U.S. propaganda movies. The military refused to reimburse him. Trivial? Yes, but indicative of the prevailing mindset.)

Mr. Ahern challenges the notion that the Viet Cong’s chief weapon in the villages was terror. To be sure, atrocities were common, but in field reports that he cites, many villagers paid a VC “rice tax” without coercion, even in areas marked on maps as “friendly” to the government.

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